The Human Connection
"Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved the entire world." (The Talmud)
Richard Brown was a jovial spirit with a ready smile, a hearty laugh, and a heart as big as his large frame. To be in his presence and soak in his friendly and gentle spirit, you couldn’t imagine that this same person had once been an angry and despairing addict living on the streets.
Richard went through the rigorous program at our St. Elizabeth’s Recovery Residence, then moved on to his own housing. But he was a fixture of the Project HOME community for several years. He worked as a cook at our Back H.O.M.E. Café (formerly at 1515 Fairmount Avenue, since closed). He volunteered his graphic arts skills for a variety of projects, including designing a Project HOME T-shirt. He greeted every visitor warmly and was always game to sit down and chat with anyone on topics trivial or philosophical. And he was active in the local recovery community, helping to organize social events and generally promote wellness among hundreds of recovering addicts.
Being the talkative sort, Richard was a natural to speak to various groups about the mission of Project HOME. Once he was speaking to a group of college students who had come to 1515 Fairmount to learn about homelessness. In response to a student who asked about what difference one person could make, Richard recounted an amazing story from his experience on the street.
He had been on the streets over ten years, in the clutches of a serious addiction. Countless times he had chased away the outreach teams, sometimes with choice curses. A day came, he told the students, when he was sick and tired of it all, and he decided that he had had enough. That night he was going to the Ben Franklin Bridge and jump off, ending it all. But first he would get money for one final hit of crack.
So, as was typical, he panhandled for a couple of hours. And he faced the typical reactions: the occasional negative or nasty remark; one or two grudging givers; and the bulk of folks passing him by as if he were invisible. But, he said, one young man stopped to talk. Richard didn’t remember much of what was said, and it was only a few brief moments. The man didn’t give him any money, but asked his name and a little about him. He seemed concerned, caring. They shook hands, and the man went on his way.
Richard finally got enough money to achieve his goal of one final high. Some odd feelings lingered from the encounter with the young man. Finally he decided, at least for the night, to forego his plans to go to the bridge.
The next day, the outreach team came to check on Richard, as they had countless times before. Acting on an impulse he didn’t even understand, Richard decided he would take up their offer of coming inside. They got him into St. Elizabeth’s that night, and Richard began his journey of recovery.
Richard told the students that he realized later the stranger’s few moments of kindness saved his life. That simple human connection touched his spirit, buoyed up something in his heart, enough that he hung on for a little longer; and it evoked a spark of a sense of his worth and dignity such that the next day he made an option to reclaim life.
Richard wanted the students to know an important truth, one that is captured in the phrase that our executive director Sister Mary Scullion often uses: “The solution to homelessness lies in all of us.” We all have gifts to share – time, talents, resources, vision – but at the core, we all can choose to make those critical human connections, to affirm the goodness and dignity of each person, to reweave the frayed web of community and rekindle the human spirit we all share.
Sadly, Richard passed away suddenly in 2002. But by then, he had reclaimed his life, and made that gifted and amazing life a gift to all of us at Project HOME and to the broader community.